Ken Olsen, Founder of Digital Equipment Corporation, Leaves Behind Route 128 Legacy

[Updated 5:15 pm. See below] Ken Olsen, the co-founder and former CEO of Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), died on Sunday. He was 84. The news was confirmed yesterday by Gordon College in Wenham, MA, where Olsen was a longtime trustee. There has been an outpouring of commentary about Olsen’s career and the impact of DEC on the computer industry. (You can read obituaries in the New York Times, Boston Globe, and CNET.)

Olsen, an MIT alum, started Digital with Harlan Anderson in 1957 with $70,000 in seed funding from Georges Doriot of American Research and Development. The Maynard, MA, company went on to dominate the minicomputer industry (as opposed to mainframes), employing more than 125,000 people in 86 countries and becoming the second-largest IT company behind IBM. Through the 1970s and ‘80s, DEC anchored the burgeoning Route 128 tech corridor and was joined by Data General, Wang, and other computer companies.

But DEC was famously slow to embrace the desktop computer market, and the company struggled through the late 80s and early 90s. Olsen resigned from DEC in 1992, and the company went on to be acquired by Compaq and then Hewlett-Packard. And as DEC went, so did the Route 128 ecosystem.

In a letter, Microsoft co-founder and chairman Bill Gates called Olsen “one of the true pioneers of the computing industry.” Gates added, “He was also a major influence in my life and his influence is still important at Microsoft through all the engineers who trained at Digital.”

Some of those engineers are weighing in with their remembrances. Gordon Bell, a principal researcher at Microsoft who spent 23 years at DEC as vice president of R&D, wrote in a post on Xconomy today, “I tend to remember all the humor and moments of irony that we shared while building computers at DEC.”

Yuchun Lee, the co-founder and former CEO of Unica (now part of IBM), worked at Digital from 1989-1992. He writes in an e-mail, “DEC was an organization with a terrific culture: one of intellectual honesty, meritocracy, and a desire to win. All of this can be directly attributed to Ken Olsen and his vision as the founder and leader of the best days of Digital. I’ve learned much of what a great and significant company ought to look and feel like as one grows up and am very fortunate to have cut my teeth there right out of school.”

History is made, and then it’s gone unless we pay attention. Olsen was the prototypical Boston tech entrepreneur. He leaves behind a legacy of thousands of employees who have gone on to new endeavors. DEC also provides a well-known case study of a hugely successful venture-backed company that failed to adapt to a changing market. Then again, not very many tech companies last more than 30 years.

I’ll update this space with any more unique comments or stories I hear from the innovation community.

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and Editor of Xconomy Boston. E-mail him at gthuang [at] xconomy.com. Follow @gthuang

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